BETHLEHEM (JTA) – The bus ride to Bethlehem from Jerusalem takes no more than 15 minutes, but for most American Jews studying in Israel, the Palestinian city in the West Bank might as well be worlds away.
That may be changing.
This month, a group of 40 rabbinical students, seminary students and young Jews crossed the Israeli military checkpoint – and the psychological divide that separates Jews from Palestinians here – to see Palestinian life in Bethlehem firsthand.
Most went without official approval from their yeshivas and learning programs, and some hadn’t told their families back home about the trip.
Some acknowledged their anxiety about the trip, which included an overnight stay in Bethlehem.
“Can someone say Tefilat Haderech?” one student called out from the back of the bus that took the group to Bethlehem, referring to the Jewish traveler’s prayer.
Minutes later the students were standing beside a heap of concrete rubble and twisted metal, which their Palestinian hosts explained was a house demolished years before by the Israeli military.
The participants spent the day running around Bethlehem, at one point visiting an elementary school dedicated to nonviolence within view of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Efrat.
While a girl named Dina greeted each participant with a wide smile and a cheese puff, some of the Jewish students peered out the window at a nearby hilltop where Jewish settlers had pitched caravans in a bid to extend the Efrat settlement.
“Some of my teachers live in Efrat,” noted one of the Jewish students, from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
The trip was organized by Encounter, a nonprofit organization that facilitates meetings between Palestinians and “future Jewish leaders” from diverse religious and political affiliations.
Since its founding in 2005, Encounter has brought nearly 400 Diaspora Jews to the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. These days it is the only Jewish group of its kind that pays regular visits to Palestinian cities.
By law, Israelis are barred from entering Palestinian Authority-controlled cities in the West Bank, but international passport holders may cross in and out freely.
Yearlong Jewish study programs in Israel “do an excellent job of educating their students about the dimensions of Israeli and Jewish life, but there’s a piece missing,” said Ilana Sumka, director of Encounter’s Jerusalem office. “We give them access to complexities on the ground that they are otherwise not exposed to.”
Encounter is a resident organization of Bikkurim, a project that supports innovative Jewish programs and is funded by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group.
As part of this month’s trip, Bethlehem resident Leila Sansour led the group on a walking tour of the 27-foot-high cement barrier that cuts off the city from nearby neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Sansour has led several groups from Encounter through the streets of Bethlehem; she says it’s good for her own sanity.
“Instead of me seeing Jews coming to my city in the form of soldiers, it’s important to see that they come to find out about me as well,” she said.
Sansour explained to the group how the wall turns Bethlehem into a prison: Some Bethlehemites haven’t been allowed a visit to Jerusalem in years, and the local economy fell into crisis when tourists stopped visiting.
A few days ago, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a special envoy for Middle East peacemaking, spent a night in Bethlehem to send the message that the city is again open for business.
But on Sansour’s tour, the Jewish visitors followed her from one silent neighborhood to another, the massive gray barrier casting a shadow over boarded-up storefronts and homes.
Israel says the barrier, part of the West Bank security fence, is necessary to keep terrorists out of Israel.
At Al Walaje, a village on Bethlehem’s outskirts, Councilwoman Shireen Alaraj said she is furious about the barrier’s route.
“If you want security, fine,” she said. “Then why do you build the wall in our backyard?”
Rabbinical student Ephraim Pelcovits said he was moved by the Palestinians’ reactions to the barrier. Living in Jerusalem, Pelcovits said, he never feels its presence, but “Palestinians speak about the wall as if it were alive.”
At one stop along the tour, Palestinian peace activists spoke candidly about the internal challenges of Palestinian politics and their close relationships with Jewish colleagues and friends. Professor Yousef El-Herimi said he hosted a group of rabbinical students at his Bethlehem home last year for an Islam study group.
After a packed day of sightseeing and lectures, the Jews went to sleep at the homes of local youths, many of whom said they would add their guests to their friends list on Facebook, the popular social networking Web site.
The following morning, the Jewish students swapped stories about their overnight experiences after a morning minyan at the Bethlehem Hotel.
“As a Jewish girl from New Jersey, I got my first Christmas invitation ever,” one participant told the group with a smile.
Jill Levy, a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said the trip was difficult but important. After losing two friends in the 2002 suicide bombing at Hebrew University, Levy said she “lost a lot of compassion for the Palestinian people.”
But “as a future rabbi, I need to be really educated about the situation in the Middle East. An integral part of that education is hearing stories from the Palestinian people,” she said.
Having visited Bethlehem twice, Levy said she is planning to return on Christmas along with some fellow students.
The popularity of Encounter’s trips to Palestinian-populated cities has prompted the program to expand its offerings. Encounter recently led a tour for Jewish federation executives, and the group is planning trips for other American Jewish delegations.
“I initially thought that the word ‘Palestinian’ rendered any program treif in certain quarters of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, a co-founder of Encounter. But, she said, “we have hit a nerve and struck a need that already existed.”